Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Tiananmen was a tragedy Beijing won’t face up to, regardless of death toll

Philip Cunningham says whether or not 10,000 is an accurate account of the number killed at the Tiananmen uprising, we know the crackdown was horrific and that Beijing won’t give a clear account
Thursday, 28 December, 2017

A newly declassified British telegram suggests that the death toll in the Tiananmen crackdown was worse than realised. Relying on a high-level Chinese source, the intelligence document cites “at least 10,000 dead” and some 40,000 injured. Stories of gratuitous violence are included in the report, written after the tragedy by the then British ambassador to China, Alan Donald.

This unexpected exposure nearly three decades after the fact raises questions about Beijing’s failure to come to terms with what it knows about what happened in 1989. Party apologists testily acknowledge a death toll in the low hundreds and perversely pin China’s economic success on the crackdown, while cruelly blaming the victims of violence for the trouble.
So, how many people died?
Journalistic estimates based on hodgepodge fact-collecting in the heat of the moment buttressed by painstaking research point to more than a thousand, but it is difficult to document beyond that.
I freelanced with the BBC during the 1989 crisis, hired for Mikhail Gorbachev’s Beijing visit, but soon the state visit became a sideshow to the peaceful occupation of Tiananmen and I got busier than I bargained for, spending every day and many nights on the square, from the time of the hunger strike in mid-May to the early hours of June 4. I was with a BBC TV crew when troops broke into downtown Beijing, and was on the square, not far from the Goddess of Democracy, when the first armoured military vehicles buzzed the crowd and pandemonium broke loose.
The news information I helped gather as a translator and field producer for my British colleagues has some bearing on Donald’s dire assessment, because BBC was on the front line and shared information with British diplomats.
Ten thousand is a shocking figure, and needs to be viewed with some scepticism. In Chinese, it is not the kind of number meant to be taken literally in most contexts, for in addition to being a mathematical unit of measurement, wa n is also a poetic and somewhat clichéd way of describing anything great in magnitude.
Since China was on the edge of civil war at the time, at least according to diplomatic insiders, one could picture a scenario where an official in opposition to the ruling clique might exaggerate or use florid language.
One of the most successful propaganda coups of Deng Xiaoping’s regime was the claim, reluctantly corroborated afterwards by dissidents and journalists, that no one died on Tiananmen Square proper. Late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and musician Hou Dejian were among eyewitnesses attesting to this. Standing their ground courageously with the last student holdouts on the square; they were permitted a peaceful evacuation from the central obelisk at daybreak.
There was no shortage of blood-curdling killing, but it took place mostly on Changan Boulevard and nearby side streets. Since “Tiananmen” became shorthand for Western reporting on the massacre, the government’s counterclaim has effectively derailed discussion. The “no one died” reasoning is odious even if technically true; it callously trivialises those killed elsewhere.
For the record, the BBC crew and I witnessed the early stages of the crackdown, some of it caught on camera, and while we were convinced that something terrible was happening on the square around 4am when the lights went out and smoke rose high, we were too far to see and it was too dark to film. While on the ground, we did see tanks in battle with the crowd, heard constant gunfire, saw tracer bullets overhead and crumpled, bloodied bodies being carted away by brave civilians. But we did not see a massacre, nor was there any sign of one at the intersection of Zhengyi Road, just across from the Beijing Hotel, which is mentioned in the secret communiqué as a killing zone. Then again, it was later reported that a sniper shot someone in the room next door to us and we didn’t see that, either.
In short, the crackdown was criminal, unnecessary and thuggish, forever wrong and it will never be right. Even Beijing’s lowball estimates are horrifying.
Is 10,000 possible? Perhaps. Beijing authorities are best positioned to answer this, but they protest rather too loudly any time the topic comes up. The blanket censorship and bizarre denials are rooted in insecurity, arrogance and fear of exposure.
Philip J. Cunningham is the author of Tiananmen Moon

Thursday, November 2, 2017



Turn on the tube or flick open your phone and the drumbeat of violence is everywhere. It’s on the nightly news and on the police and procedural dramas that precede and surpass the news as variations on a theme. Things are heating up in every possible way. Even the weather is getting more violent. 

Such daunting conditions call for undivided attention, top-notch science and social unity  if the tipping point to rising seas and a global deluge is to be avoided, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything these days. The relentless burning of fossil fuel and paving of the wilderness have created lab-like conditions that spawn and speed up global warming. It's not just Franken-cyclones unprecedented in punch, but heat waves, droughts, flooding and wildfires of biblical proportions.

Law and order, turbulence and chaos. As the media beats the drum of breaking news, the badder the better, it drowns out thoughtful deliberation, instead amplifying the crassest aspects of a crass society. The nightly news reports have become so absurd, they are hard to distinguish from late night TV parodies of the same.

Twisted tweets contribute to the battered byte syndrome, an era where fake new reigns supreme. It's hard to tell right from wrong when getting whacked with excess information in all directions, with hardly a breath between gasp-inducing shockers. Hyper-connective technology and malignant feedback loops are part of the problem, serving up constant fear, static and division, but geopolitics and attitudes on the ground are changing, too.

America’s reality-show impresario President Trump threatens the existence of distant foreign nations with dire late-night tweets and the desensitization continues apace, delivered in billions of bits and bytes, day and night. Bullet-addled dramas keep eyes glued to the screen until the next shocking update or shoot up or terror attack. The overdose of “breaking news” may be an advertiser’s delight but it is also a telling sign of the times. Mainstream news may not be fake but it is broken.

The US emerged from the smoking rubble of World War Two as a model of a genial, generous democracy but it has come to represent the opposite; increasingly tribal and accusative, imperious and spiteful, riven by the vanity of identity politics, partisan ire and ruthless greed, with much of the rot at the top.

To make a bad state of affairs worse, the US lacks decent leadership, the operative word being decent. A reckless real estate scammer and sham presides at the helm, conning and conniving, getting rich and getting even, aided and abetted by his slumlord son-in-law and a coterie of thuggish cons.

If it’s bad at home, where electoral rituals and constitutional protection at least make it possible to protest the obvious insanity of the moment and make some noise, it’s rather dire abroad where victims of US violence frequently die in silence. Emboldened by Obama’s affable okay and cool psycho-killer style, the lords of war can kill without being killed, targeting drones to strike unsuspecting flesh from above, seeking full-spectrum domination. It's Beltway brutality--warring at will without being held to account. 

Uncle Sam likes to dress up in drag as Lady Liberty, but there's little room for feminine intuition in the global gladiator's arena of winner takes all because might makes right.  when it comes to  leadership of the free world worth if Domestic election cycles wave the democratic banner while intensifying the never-ending war from the air, gratuitously bombing foreign shores to shore up support and score domestic political points. Johnson and Nixon did it, Clinton and Bush too.

War hovers on the horizon for the Korean peninsula, yet the same-old pundits want to bring it on, blithely invoking the nuclear option. Even Hollywood has helped heat things up, cranking out a film about killing Kim Jong-un with graphic special effects, a film endorsed by Obama.

Information wants to be free, or so the net evangelists say, but it’s capturing the free flow of data where profits are made. Edward Snowden alerted the world to the dangers of NSA snooping, but that’s a discreet affair compared to the raucously invasive data-mining of the Silicon Valley giants who monetize the minutiae of daily life. The top five most powerful corporations in the US are deeply invested in selling personal information, yet they lack even the fig leaf of oversight ascribed to government surveillance. Amoral moguls profit obscenely by paying attention to our inattention to intimacies, while monetizing shattered attention spans.

The Pentagon expands and expends its awesome arsenal, while trickle-down militarism and weapons of war enter the US domestic arena, triggering cops to use lethal force under the most banal of circumstances, answering with SWAT teams and lead projectiles any apparent challenger who displays less than abject deference.

America is on the brink, and while there’s unease, if not a rising sense of panic, it is not clear what can be done about it. Elections? We know how the last one turned out. Media? Is it bringing people together or stoking division and fear?  Law? Not when money can buy influence and rich get out of jail free. A “limited” military action overseas? A short, limited war, like all the long wars were billed before they careened out of control? With the rip and roar of missiles is at hand, aiming every which way, is mutually assured destruction not far away? Whither humanity?

The showdown on the Korean peninsula presents no easy choices. Even the brightest, most judicious leader would be vexed with the nuclear-tipped provocations of Pyongyang, but is lazy thinker like Trump up to the task?  Putting the nuclear football in the hands of an incurious but impulsive man who is petulant and quick to take offense puts the world order as we know it on the line.

Russia, answering years of US meddling on its borders, has put the US on a Cold War footing with a sly psy-ops campaign that sought to sow discord in an already divided nation, perhaps nudging Trump to victory. Yet Democratic Party outrage at “Russian interference”--which is said to have included hacking, phishing, leaking to Wikileaks and buying up Twitter and Facebook ads--rings like revenge served cold. Perfidious or not, Russia’s uncanny detection of social fault-lines and manipulation of the Internet is a backhand complement to US political practice. Hillary Clinton’s team of so-called “humanitarian interventionists” were no slouches when it came to the dark arts of using misinformation and social media to exploit, enrage and exploit civil discord in places like Libya, Syria and Ukraine, egging on violence. Or to paraphrase America's egotistical Secretary of State, self-styled role model to young girls everywhere, on the push for regime change in Gaddafi's Libya, "we came, we saw, he died."

The tools of media manipulation are new, but there’s nothing new about playing one side off the other. The British did it everywhere in their empire, Burma being a classic case, rift to this day with sharply-drawn colonial era ethnic divides, and domino-dealing America soon followed suit.

Even now, the US continues to divide and conquer with interventions in the far abroad (precisely the sort of thing America would never tolerate closer to home.) Whether cheering on militant ethnic groups in China at the expense of Han-dominated Beijing, or “moderate” Saudi-funded rebels in Syria, or conspiring with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics to rile Russia, the finger-wagging humanitarian interventionists have much to answer for.

Trump may be impeached, then again maybe not.

In the meantime, a nervous world nervously awaits his next tweet.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


Losers of lost wars looking for rewrite history


Japanese Prime Minister Abe famously rushed to New York in November 2016 to obtain an “audience” with the gilded man in the golden tower.  Shinzo Abe took some heat for this seemingly desperate and unstatesmanlike hustle, well before Trump’s inauguration and move to the White House, but for better or worse his odd courtship of  “The Donald” has blossomed.

On the one hand, Japan has wedged itself closer to the US center of power than China could ever hope to do, not that truculent, nationalistic China under the face-conscious Xi Jinping has shown any great desire to supplicate and suck up to Washington. In this sense, the lean-on-Washington policy outcome was easily achievable even without the special hush and rush visit to Trump Tower. It’s true that previous US administrations have methodically passed over Japan, treating the US-China relationship as the most important bilateral link, bar none, but given that fact that dragon slayers outnumber panda-huggers in Trump’s top coterie of advisors, a hugfest with China is not in the cards.

The new “special” US-Japan relationship, with echoes of the “Ron-Yasu” bonding of the Reagan era (a special relationship that was undone by Japan rising too fast for America to comfortably adjust to) is buttressed by shared concerns with containing the rise of China.

Enter North Korea stage left. The unpredictable plump kid from Pyongyang is a demonic joker; the wild card in any reasoned and measured foreign policy game. But he has a role to play for both sides, because Japan's hardcore rightists require an enemy to rile up and unnerve its peace-minded people to the point of no longer being peaceable.

Kim Jung-un fits the bill, a snarky personification of the bogeyman required to justify extreme measures at home: ditching the peace constitution and arming Japan to the hilt.

More than anything else, North Korea puts the Abe-Trump relationship to the test, because Trump is on record as saying that Japan should do more to defend itself, even in nuclear terms, while Abe has made a career of shredding Japan’s intolerably peaceful image in his bid to re-arm and re-ignite the passions of past nationalism. Will the US continue to commit itself to protecting Japan or shall Japan go it alone and protect itself?

Although Abe and his cabinet kept a prudent distance from the annual ritual show of fealty at Yasukuni Shrine in mid-August this year, Abe has made a career of glorifying the last war so that Japan might one day go to war again. If and when it does, the munitions business, guided by his grandfather Kishi in the last war, will boom again.

The huge bronze torii at Yasukuni Shrine is Japan’s ground zero for belligerent recidivists who lament losing the war that put them on the wrong side of history. In this sense it is not unlike the summation in a single piece of bronze the many sorry bronze statues of US confederate war heroes who similarly glorify a lost war.

After the eruption of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump has come under fire for tolerating, if not dog-whistling and tossing red meat to irate losers on the white nationalist side.  Abe, too, could come under fire very quickly if he misjudges the national mood in favor of his narrow and somewhat odious base; hence the tactical retreat from Yasukuni.

Unlike Trump, who prefers tweets to Teleprompters and seems to relish upending common sense, Abe and his beleaguered team judged this was not the time to be reviving bitter, hardcore memories that serve to divide rather than unite.

What Japan’s right-wing Hinomaru-waving sound truck commanders and the torch-bearing neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates in the US do have in common is an aggrieved, narcissistic sense of loss. They glorify lost wars, no matter the human cost, and lost “heroes” of lost causes, no matter how time-blackened their names. 

It’s no coincidence that the disciples of these losers are losers from the get-go, reared on the wrong side of history,socially ill adept, politically tone-deaf and hard-pressed to win at life in a stable, orderly peacetime economy. They feel wronged, but are in the wrong, yet, no matter how deplorable, they are ignored at society’s peril.

It is no coincidence that Abe and his core following of right-wing misfits share with Trump and his core following of right-wing misfits a bent for fanaticism. They thrive on offending common decency and good taste. At considerable risk to their political careers, both Abe and Trump have sought to bolster their strongman status by stirring primeval urges in primeval men: blood, soil and bronze.

This down and dirty political grounding is at odds with the fast-lane life of fine tailored suits and fashionable circles of money and prestige, yet both men, for reasons of strategy and temperament, rely on rabble as well as reason. As cold-hearted contrarians, they express themselves most revealingly when revising history, revising reality, trampling on rights and skewering social taboos.

In Japan the most critical taboos deal with the renunciation of war, while in the US (which does not flinch from war regardless of which party is in power) renunciation of racism is sacrosanct.

Both men are high-flyers who have ridden high on flaunting refined values and upsetting the deeply-held pieties of their respective societies.

In this sense, Abe’s eager courtship of Trump, with its backroom backslapping in hidden towers and chumming around on the golf course, goes beyond the dictates of national policy photo-ops and speaks to the meeting of a kindred clan of hardliners.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017




John Joyce leans over the railing, staring at the slosh and swirl of the flow below. He doesn't want to jump but he's drawn to the repressed fury of the sinuous river as it  slices with menacing calm through the night city.
Clumps of weeds and water hyacinth tumble and rotate, tangle and untangle in the sea-bent surge. The foamy waters bear the residue of upstream refuse as the northern highlands flush south, carrying the runoff of muddy fields to this paved over junction below the Central Plains. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the boundaries between land and water have begun to blur. Even now, under a calm night sky with nary a cloud or star in sight, the waters continue rise to in response to unseen upstream storms. As the water accumulates, puddles will swell into ponds, swollen canals will overflow their banks and low-lying roads will be navigable only by boat.

Drunk enough not to realize quite how drunk he was, John had plodded down congested streets from the monument all the way to the river in a desperate search for something. Fresh air? Open space? Oblivion? A return to nature?

A baleful tune wafts over the turbulent waters, lifted by a musty breeze. Gripping the weathered railing until his knuckles go white, he scans the far shore. The twinkling lights of a ramshackle riverside beer garden catch his eye. A sequined singer on a brightly lit stage can be seen regaling the empty tables under the canopy of coconut fronds with breezy aplomb. She is not without talent, nor easily discouraged, moving smoothly from one number to the next without waiting for applause--indeed there is none. Her voice travels clear across the water as she warbles on. If her heart was half as broken as the sad songs she sang seemed to suggest, perhaps performing for the river was audience enough. 

Backed by the twang of an electric guitar and a drum box, the soaring soprano range of the songstress is amplified and validated by a powerful reverb microphone. There is something soulful about her tonal echoes, even if no one is listening, especially because no one is listening. The plaintive tale of lost upcountry love stirs something deep within John's being, speaking to something lost within. The upcountry tunes remind him of the first time he toured the countryside with Sombat, and the folly of youthful recklessness that went with it. Self-esteem eroded by failure, self-control weakened by drink, his desire to keep the past at bay is upended by the siren call of the night, bringing to mind the very thing he was trying not to think about.

He no longer could pretend that bygones were bygones, nor could he cavalierly chalk off past errors to the callowness of youth. Lost between the irretrievable receding of the past and the unknowable course of the future, he is stuck at an impasse in the here and now. If his present existence should come to an abrupt end, what of it? Would it matter? 
The taxis and trucks speeding over the bridge won't see a thing, and if those unkempt drunks fishing from the crest of the bridge were to notice anything at all, it would be too little, too late: a bewildering splash in the dark.
Farang tok nam! Foreigner fall in  water! 
The sight of a tugboat plowing beneath the bridge mercifully diverts him from further dark musings. The tug's powerful engine sputters and wheezes as it churns the choppy water, emitting a trail of silvery exhaust. And, then, whoosh! a whale-sized barge emerges from underneath the bridge, shaped like Noah's Ark but carrying nothing but sand. It glides placidly behind the tugboat at a steady clip, linked by a semi-submerged length of cable. Another ark-like barge follows, and then another in train, lined up like ducks in the wake of the mother tug. There's a half-naked man napping comfortably on one of the gliding dunes, oblivious to the wash of waves lapping the edge of his low-riding hull. John reckons that if he jumped at the right instant he could land squarely on the moist, absorbent sand and be transported away into the night as the barge floated through Bangkok on its way to the sea.
The taut sinews of the illuminated suspension bridge glow like the strings of a high-tension harp strung across the dark waters. Another tug sounds its horn and yet another ensemble of barges follows in the wake of the first. 
John glances at his bare wrist, forgetting he had left his watch at home. He straightens up and resumes his doleful march, as unsure of his destination as he was of the unknown hour.  It was by no means early, the beer garden was all but empty, but judging from the steady flow of traffic it wasn't that late yet, either. Wet wheels lick the pavement as whining automotive motors whip by. A heavy truck hurtling by blows a shock wave of hot air. Blinded by the glare of oncoming headlights, he doesn’t realize he is being watched. 
A short distance ahead, the footpath is blocked by a group of men enjoying the libations of a shared bottle. The sight of grimy, downtrodden men, whiskered and going gray, sitting on their haunches, hunkered down sipping booze on the soot-stained curb just inches from the flow of hot, heavy traffic was far from unusual in a city where man and motor lived in tight proximity. 
But there's a young woman in their midst, sassy, bright and fresh, and that takes him by surprise. It's hard to tell who's teasing who but the banter is playful as the men hold their bottles aloft and press her to join them in drink. The fishermen seem to be testing their luck, trying to catch her attention with the same resigned spirit that has them improbably dangling homespun lines from  railing, hoping beyond hope to hook a bite from below.
The pretty girl is holding her own, not shrinking away and not at all put out, either. She's engaged in playful repartee, giving them some lip. There's something musical in the lilt of her voice, something sensual in the way she carries herself. She flexes with sinuous energy, and there's a gentle sway to her hip as she rocks back and forth from one foot to the other. In the fitful illumination of passing headlights, she looks elfin and sprite-like, almost a vision. She has high, broad cheekbones and a button nose; her hair is bobbed and tinted with golden streaks. Her skimpy halter-top exposes bare shoulders and a generous expanse of belly, her short denim shorts reveal comely thighs.
Pooh-ying. Down to earth, fun-loving and lovable. In a way she was what he'd been looking for all these years, was she not?
So--what’s her story? A sassy passerby? What was she to the men she was with? A relative? A niece? A neighbor? A nobody?

Thursday, August 3, 2017



There is something repugnant about China subjecting people to a party-line 'history test'


Ruling authorities in China are constantly scouring and scrubbing the past in order to control the future. Poor old Confucius has seen his reputation bounce up and down to a dizzying degree, going from emblem of everything that was wrong with the old society to mascot of neo-communist “Confucian Centers” abroad. Moscow has been best friend and bitter enemy. Ditto for Washington. Even Tokyo enjoyed a respite from recrimination in the “Silk Road” days of the 1980s. Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT) party has swung from public enemy number one to the best hope for reunification with the mainland. Tycoons and landlords, cast as parasitic leeches deserving to be shot in the revolutionary era, have now been rehabilitated as heroic captains of commerce in newly affluent China.
So it’s no surprise that a megastar such as Justin Bieber should see his reputation soar and crash. The Canadian singer was warmly welcomed when he toured China in 2013, though his skateboarding antics in Beijing and horsing around on the Great Wall offended some. In China as elsewhere, drunken escapades and careless comments contribute to a “bad boy” reputation, but the Rolling Stones played in China (albeit with an edited playlist) so raunchy pop star behavior is rarely the last straw.
In China it is politics, or the perception of such, that is the surest route to getting stamped “banned by Beijing.” Lady Gaga had the door slammed in her face for meeting with the Dalai Lama. Likewise Oasis found itself banned after a forensic “friend of China” search revealed a concert in support of Tibet 12 years earlier. Local artists like Cui Jian get banned for faintly expressed political views, not raucous rock star behavior.
That’s why there is no more cogent explanation for Bieber’s recent case of being rejected by Chinese authorities than his ill-considered photo op at Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine in April 2014. To say it was an “ill-considered” visit is not to say he had no right to visit the shrine, for, as noxious and repugnant a symbol as the shrine has become, people in Japan, like America, are accustomed to freedoms still unknown in China. But with Beijing nationalists on the lookout for even the faintest affronts to China’s dignity, real and imagined, there is something very noxious and repugnant about China subjecting individuals, at home and abroad, to a party-line “history test.”
Bieber’s got a lot of history for a young man, and not all of it good, but sometimes bad is good, or at least extremely bankable. Pop singers like Madonna and Lady Gaga set a template for Bieber and others who would discover that there’s no news worse than no news. Better to provoke and tease and reinvent oneself on a monthly basis than to slide into oblivion.
So while Bieber may get the memory hole treatment in China, he is far from oblivion elsewhere. The 23-year-old global star is sweeping the world on tour while racking up billions of downloads of his latest catchy remix “Despacito.”
The suggestive if not illicit lyrics and the highly danceable tune of “Despacito” are catnip for social-networked youth. Teaming up with Puerto Rican songwriter Luis Fonsi, Bieber struck gold with a catchy tune that at once celebrates the Spanish language and transcends it. In fact, Beiber’s bungling use of “burrito” and “Dorito” when he forgets the lyrics transcends the language so much that his fans were slow to realize that “Despacito,” meaning “slow” is about slow sex:
“Let me surpass your danger zones / Until I provoke your screams …”
Skirting danger zones can enhance a reputation because bankable controversy keeps one in the spotlight and gets screaming fans squealing with delight. But it’s not all calculated and some of his lapses, like that at Yasukuni, seem just plain impulsive.
There’s the infamous Instagram photo of the star at Yasukuni standing with hands pressed together. Surely this is more of a touristy gesture than a nod to war criminals, though the “controversial” nature of the shrine may have appealed to his inner rebel. The offending photo rocketed across China and got tweeted around the world, after which he tried to amend for his apparent indiscretion by declaring:
“I love you China and I love you Japan.”
Words are cheap and perhaps this constitutes nothing more than insincere word play, but there’s a profound side to such a statement. Given the divisive history and almost intractable tensions inherent in the Sino-Japanese relationship, the pop star’s simplistic declaration, saying in effect that I refuse to chose sides, is a stubborn but principled stance.
To embrace both Japan and China with the same word hug in today’s world is outright utopian, reminiscent of John Lennon, because nationalists on both sides want to make a zero-sum game of it; if you love China, you can’t possibly love Japan, and vice versa.
Bieber’s lucrative fan base in China is disappointed and in disarray. The singer is learning, as war-haunted politicians in China and Japan have long known, that no apology is good enough when you don’t really mean it, and the “offended” party isn’t interested in forgiving you.
A Beijing government spokesman responding to questions about the ban took a measured tone, acknowledging Bieber’s talent: “We hope … he can improve his words and actions and truly become a singer beloved by the public.”
But given China’s recent descent into shrill nationalism and its concerted repudiation of Western values, to express “hope” that someone will “improve” has eerie and ominous overtones. It means following the party line. It means “we’re watching you” and taking note of where you stand.
Meanwhile, being banned from a place that is finicky about its image and obsessed with its own righteousness is not new for Bieber; fans report he was once banned from Disneyland for socking it to Mickey Mouse. The Asian leg of Bieber’s world tour will take him to Tokyo in September where he may belatedly be allowed to visit Disneyland, but despite his wishful win-win statement to the contrary, he won’t be crooning in China any time soon.

Monday, May 22, 2017


America's besieged president plays the game of looking presidential on a lengthy trip abroad

Japan Times, May 22, 2017
By Philip J Cunningham
U.S. President Donald Trump likes to talk and he likes to tweet but his words are coming back to haunt him.
“Drain the swamp!” “Stop the leaks!” “Lock her up!” “Extreme vetting! — these gems have gained a new resonance that aptly apply to him, his actions and his appointees.
There’s his documented mocking of Barack Obama for taking vacations while president, and yet Trump has hit the golf course at various resorts with his name attached nearly every weekend since his inauguration. There’s the drain-the-swamp rhetoric that now sounds less like a promise to his political base and more like a reference to the quagmire he has created. He has belittled opponents for not showing respect to the FBI, then he fires FBI Director James Comey without a kind word, followed by threats to expose him. Then there are the mean-spirited chants of “lock her up” led by Trump’s then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, now himself the subject of a serious criminal investigation. “Lock him up?”
What goes around, comes around, especially with a man who flip-flops his position on an almost daily basis. So where’s he going on his first presidential trip abroad? Saudi Arabia, the country he blamed for 9/11.
It’s as if words don’t mean anything to him, consistency is for losers and rules don’t apply. Taxes are for the little guys, ditto for the law. The real question is how Trump has gotten away with as much as he has gotten away with for as long as he has, both as a wheeling-dealing, oft-bankrupt businessman with documented shady business practices, and as president, where he lies, bullies, cajoles and struts his stuff with the whole world watching.
The rocky tenure in office of the shameless one has not been an unmitigated disaster. Like a broken clock that tells the right time twice a day, Trump stumbles on workable ideas now and then. This seems especially true in East Asia where China, Japan and both South and North Korea have taken notice of his belligerent talking points and acted on the same with cool compunction, taking his inflated rhetoric as a real estate hustle and rug-merchant haggle, because what he really wants to do is make a deal.
Trump’s also been good to the media, despite words to the contrary, because his clownish, inflated, self-infatuated persona is easy to mock and fun to toy with. Late night talk show host Stephen Colbert is one of many who has risen to the occasion with quips like, “Mr. Trump, first of all, you are a bad president. Please resign. …”
Fiery opening monologues and humorous readouts of borderline insane tweets have boosted ratings and attracted exactly the kind of slap-back tweet from the White House that competitive entertainment shows live for.
Should Trump actually resign, or get forced out, Michael Pence, the hyper-reactionary, soft-spoken vice president, automatically gains the White House. If nothing else, commentary will suffer and the jokes won’t be as funny because the joke will be on the U.S. public. Pence is a right-wing cipher, the opposite of good comedic material.
Of course Trump might soldier on, but as long as he does, his words will haunt him every step of the way.
Bleak, secretive Saudi Arabia, where gruesome torture and bloody executions are part of state-enforced intolerance, is certainly an odd choice for the president’s first trip abroad. According to Trump’s own extreme vetting criteria, another person taking the same trip probably wouldn’t be let back in. Nor is Trump’s already trumpeted speech on Islam bound to bring peace to the Mideast, though he seems to think he has the King Midas touch. If he wings it and departs from script by as much as a single sentence, a diplomatic disaster looms. But that’s not all; Israel, already irritated by Trump’s cavalier handling of top secret intelligence, is also on the itinerary.
So why go flying off to the Mideast now? In taking such a trip at such a time, he is at risk of returning to a country that has firmly turned against him. With formidable FBI veteran Robert Mueller as special counsel investigating potential presidential crimes, a jaded media looking for any excuse to strike back at the man who mocks their output as “fake news” and opportunistic politicians on both sides of the aisle testing the wind and tacking accordingly, the U.S. commander in chief will get less than a hero’s welcome once back home.
Sure, it’s a tried and tested feint for a besieged president to play the game of looking presidential on a lengthy trip abroad, and Trump’s advisers, when they are not backstabbing and fighting with one another or being fired, may have reckoned some fresh, foreign air would do the big boss good given the foul atmosphere inside the D.C. Beltway. But the Mideast itinerary is a minefield of explosive issues, bad optics and things waiting to go wrong.
Trump, who seems to fancy himself an expert on all things Clinton, and was a golfing pal of ex-President Bill Clinton before the most recent election cycle pitted him against Bill’s politically recycled wife, may be taking a page from the Clinton playbook.
How could a playboy of his caliber not be aware of the long trip the Clintons took to China in July 1998 just as the Monica Lewinsky allegations were reaching a fever pitch? It’s surely a telling moment for a president, Democrat or Republican, when the scrutiny of the free press and the heat of democracy’s kitchen gets so unbearable that it comes as a relief to touch down in a cold-hearted authoritarian land where leaders are always right and never wrong.

Monday, April 10, 2017



By Philip J Cunningham

“Fruitful” said the People’s Daily, while an upbeat China Daily described the Mar-a-Lago meet as a ‘win-win’ tete-a-tete.

Tellingly, Chinese state media coverage of President Xi’s visit to the US was whitewashed of any mention of the dramatic April 6, 2017 missile attack on Syria, first revealed to Xi during a ceremonial state banquet.

Chinese observers had to wait until after Xi was safely out of the US to get the news and let fly their true feelings about the provocative timing of the provocative act.

The contrast of Chinese and Western coverage is a tale of two summits, or more precisely, the two conflicting tales of the same summit.

A missile strike in the middle of a summit, what was that all about? A shot across the bow? A show of military prowess second to none? An oblique cry for help with North Korea? A non-verbal way for the potty-mouthed serial insulter who famously said “China is raping our country” to express displeasure within the confines of banquet protocol?

Trump’s sneak attack on Syria used the summit as cover. While Xi was earnestly talking “Belt and Road” Trump was thinking “Shock and Awe.”

Xi handled the rude interlude with poker-faced aplomb, despite the insult inherent in the awkward timing.

Imagine being guest of honor at a state dinner planned to trumpet bilateral ties only to have your host lean over as dessert is being served to whisper, “we’re bombing Syria tonight.”

Cause for indigestion, if not indignation, is it not?

You hold your rising sense of alarm in check. You play it cool, you play it presidential, but there’s no disguising the fact you have been played.

You get the sinking feeling you’ve been used as a prop, a backdrop, stuck in a sideshow while the clown steps into the center ring to draw more attention to himself in a more explosive drama.

Political summits are designed to generate above-the-fold publicity and wall-to-wall TV coverage while leaders build trust and solve problems

And let’s say you are a bit face-conscious as the self-styled strongman of the world’s biggest country because you have just flown halfway around the globe to a remote resort described by your media as “the southeastern US coastal town of Palm Beach” to reach out to your counterpart, only to be put on the spot.

What do you do? Confront and argue? Storm out in protest? Or finish going through your pre-scripted itinerary and quietly slip away?

The state press in your home country dutifully omits mention of the marred summit at Mar-a-Lago, but a military strike in a tinderbox country is a hard thing to hide.

You still carry the burden of showing a billion plus people back home that you are the man, one of the great political figures of the contemporary era, that you command respect wherever you go.

But your host pulled a fast one on you. It’s the worst kind of insult--you’re not even sure it’s an insult at first because it seems inadvertent--but it sticks. The trick was pulled so fast, and with so little advance warning, that you look like a co-conspirator in a gratuitous act of war in contravention to your stated policy of non-intervention.

No one likes being a chump, no one likes being trumped. No one likes being made a “cuck” of, to borrow a term popular in the White House these days.

So what do you do?

You keep your cool and continue to play the good-natured guest who respectfully endures the song and dance performances of children; musical interludes that may well turn out to be the high point of the summit.

That night, you hightail it out of that tawdry tropical town, bolt from a tinsel castle entirely lacking in the pomp and grandeur of the national capital. You get back on your custom-designed jumbo jet and make a brief stopover in Alaska to gaze at some snow-covered peaks and eat a bite of seafood, as if to salvage something from a journey to humiliation and back. You look longingly at the mountains, as if you are casting your eyes on America for the last time.

Your national media understands, even before they get detailed, explicit guidance to fill in the gaps, that you have to come out of this looking good, even if you are not feeling good about it.

It was a successful summit—could your captive media portray it as anything else? The photo coverage is adequate, even endearing. You held your own in a bewildering, gilded environment of reality TV stars, hard-gripped handshakes and aggressive non-verbal posturing.

But you were treated like a mark by a world-class con man, a mere prop in another man’s drama.

The US media is free, so what can you say? Free to ignore you, free to entertain, free to follow base impulses, free to cash in on calumny and killing. Free to bark en masse like dogs of war, free to behold the “beautiful” sight of Tomahawk missiles launched like fireworks, free to rally around the flag. Free to admire a commander-in-chief willing to kill, willing to humiliate, willing, at last, to toe the Beltway line.

You got punked by an orange-haired clown who wears too much makeup. Your august presence was but a footnote to the big news of the day. You merited less than a minute’s time, if that, in a news cycle dominated by the whoopie cry of war. 

The incredible shrinking summit. Going, going gone, You came and went. You left without luggage but not empty-handed. Your host promised a reciprocal visit to see you in your capital later this year.

Where might China let the missiles fly to return the favor?